Be in the boardroom in 10 minutes,” reads the E-mail from Senior Vice President Alan Young. The CEO is out on his boat, and a storm has knocked out all communication. Worse, there has been a massive fire in the call center in South America. “We could lose billions,” Young says. The board has given senior staff emergency powers. You’re a top manager who has been called in to help. What do you do?
No, it’s not a bad TV movie but rather the final scenario in a new computer-based simulation called Virtual Leader. Mixing educational content with a dash of video-game spice, such computer simulations are the newest high-tech training ground for managers. “It’s not often that you can hit the rewind button in a business situation,” says Alfredo Herrera, a product engineering manager with Advanced Micro Devices in Austin, who took part in a company-sponsored simulation earlier this year. “Simulations allow you to do that.”
While hands-on learning has always appealed to students and educators, says E-learning expert Pat Galagan of the American Society for Training and Development, only recently have the technology and price been right for computer-based simulations to emerge from military and flight schools and enter the corporate classroom. According to Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based research firm, within four years 70 percent of all corporate E-learning will include some kind of simulation.
Realistic learning experiences, delivered over the Internet or via CD, are at the heart of most simulations. San Francisco-based Ninth House even uses TV and movie actors, like Brian George (he played the failed Pakistani restaurateuron Seinfeld), in its streaming-video programs on how to hire employees and manage projects. Other computer-based training programs replicate the mundane details of real-life businesses. Applying to be a pharmacist at Walgreens? You can spend about two hours on a day-in-the-life module created for the drugstore chain by CognitiveArts in Evanston, Ill. Tasks include filling out work schedules, answering phones, and reprimanding employees.
SimuLearn, the Norwalk, Conn., company that created Virtual Leader and is now marketing it to potential clients, uses a database of over 200 body movements to construct characters that behave–sort of–like real people. Push too hard when negotiating with your virtual colleagues (all of whom look as if they walked off the set of a slightly out-of-date video game), and they might put their faces in their hands or even slam the table in anger. Things could be worse: Give poor advice to a saleswoman in a business gaming program created by London-based Imparta, and she may just give you the finger.
“People learn by practicing, by making mistakes,” says Clark Aldrich, executive vice president of SimuLearn. Most of the simulations allow users to repeat sessions so they can see the results of different choices if their decisions didn’t go well the first time around. Some programs, like Imparta’s, even have electronic “mentors” who guide users through rough patches. But it’s the true-to-life narratives that keep busy managers engaged. During his daylong session with a simulation created by Philadelphia-based Strategic Management Group, for instance, one of Herrera’s “employees” quit. Dealing with the departing employee’s workload made him realize how unprepared his own team was for such a situation. “The simulation pointed out weaknesses in the way I was managing my [group],” Herrera says. So he began to cross-train his employees to cover for one another in an emergency. A few months later when one of his employees quit in real life, Herrera says, he was ready.
Simulations are not without their drawbacks. Morgan McCall, a professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California, says there’s simply no substitute for real-world experience. An interactive computer program is better than a textbook, he says, “but it’s not the same as facing a troublesome subordinate across the table.” Simulations teach only limited interpersonal skills because they provide limited choices. “It’s emotional realism, not theoretical or intellectual, that really drives learning,” McCall says.
But for some, a little role-playing at the computer screen can yield valuable insights. Rahul Roy, a management director with the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson in Chicago, played a marketing director in an Imparta-created program last year. “It made me think from a different point of view,” he says. Roy’s clients are typically marketing directors, so he relished getting an up-close look at everything from their vocabulary to the problems they face in talking to their own research, sales, and production departments. “For a day,” he says, “I was my client.”
This article first appeared in US News and World Report